Why Shows Like Serial Killer Drama Prodigal Son are Canceled Despite Millions of Viewers — The Bloody Mess that is Network Viewer Ratings
Part 1 of a series examining TV viewer ratings
How did a show like Prodigal Son, with millions of weekly viewers, get canceled after two seasons? It’s complicated. It’s all about how viewership is counted by the networks —or not counted properly — and why.
Each has its own numbers story around viewer ratings, but after seeing the data relative to Prodigal Son, it would also be interesting to effect the same examination of Hannibal’s numbers over its 3 seasons, since the fandom, the show’s writer and runner, Bryan Fuller, along with star Mads Mikkelsen and the entire cast of the show still want to see a Hannibal Season 4 ordered by a streaming service, despite that it’s been off the air for several years.
One of the important factors in the recent outcry to save the top ten Fox show Prodigal Son is that the volume of fans watching it is actually much higher — by at least 35% — than Fox is reporting during its own limited, and arguably antiquated, way of tracking ratings for its U.S.-only advertisers.
A quick way to summarize this complicated issue: It’s all about U.S. sponsors, the U.S. live-viewer count, and the short view-time count, which doesn’t take into effect delayed viewers (fans who can’t watch the current episode right away).
After speaking with an economist — who tracks TV ratings for fun! — about the nature and process of U.S. and International ratings tracking — or more accurately, the lack thereof — it became clear that the Prodigal Son series has more than enough viewers to keep it relevant and bonus — extremely attractive viewer statistics — so why does the Fox viewer data for Season 2 say otherwise? That can be broken down into two murderous arenas: tracking viewer ratings and bloody messes.
Tracking only United States ratings. Sorry, world.
Even though there are plenty of international viewers, they are not tracked. Why? It’s because the funding for each Network’s show is provided by U.S.-only advertisers. They don’t care about the audience outside the U.S. — sales of their products don’t primarily come from that demographic, so Fox doesn’t even count its non-U.S. viewers. However, streaming services like Netflix certainly do. Nielsen tracks viewing habits worldwide, but Fox makes use of only U.S. data.
U.S. Live, Live+3, Live+7 . . . Ouch!
Here’s where things begin to make your brain hurt if you’re not a statistician or an economist who reads TV series rating information just for fun — power and props to them.
In TV ratings, the number that counts the most in the eyes of the networks are the Live Viewer numbers — that is, they want to know how many viewers are watching live when an episode airs in its designated time slot for the first time. They only count the Live views and immediate SD (Same-Day viewing) plus 3 days.
So what happens when a large number of viewers watch your show, but because of your new time slot, they’re forced to watch it delayed — on another day or time? (Note that Prodigal Son moved to Tuesdays at 9 PM ET, a historically difficult time slot for any show for Season 2, which changed the numbers — those available to watch it air live). What if, by necessity, those viewers who are not available to watch live on Tuesdays now watch the show later — often days later — like on the weekend? Well, that’s a range that isn’t even counted by the networks.
So, in Season 1, if you were an avid Live-Watcher, but you work late, have a long commute, have a class to attend, homework to complete, etc. on Tuesday nights and you need to watch the show later in the week . . . you sadly do not count. Well, of course, you count to the cast, the crew, and the writers of Prodigal Son — in a big way, too, as this is an appreciative bunch that really enjoy working together on the show, and they’ve made that known to their fans on Twitter — but to Fox and to other TV Networks, sorry, you don’t.
Lou Diamond Phillips, who plays Lt. Gil Arroyo in Prodigal Son, and has also directed episodes of the show’s Season 2 — including Catherine Zeta-Jones’s debut episode on the show — has been vocal in his appreciation of the enthusiasm and interactiveness of the Prodigal Son fandom during this show’s 2 seasons.
The numbers and comparisons examined for Season 2 demonstrate that Prodigal Son regularly outperforms in delayed viewing. Its delayed number percentages are, in fact, better than most of the network shows it competes with (FBI, for example).
This makes a strong argument for Prodigal Son having enough viewers to continue the series but for moving this series to a streaming service like HBOMax, Netflix, or Hulu — streaming services care about the total views not whether you watched it the second it posted.
Bloodstains are messy — So is bad data
Bloodstains and relationships with serial killers — something the characters in Prodigal Son must sort out every week — are messy. But counting viewer data that a network uses to maintain or cancel a show really should not be. This is 2021, shouldn’t we have the ability to be within a percentage point or less for data we’ve been tracking for decades? Evidently not!
Issues surrounding the Season 2 view count include bad data. According to Variety, February Sweeps had a major glitch. Nielsen undercounted households by 2–6% —and worse, it was for those between ages 18 and 49, which is the audience most desired by advertisers in traditional TV entertainment. That means that the data used to cancel Prodigal Son was driven by undercounted households watching the show. Never mind that it is already arguable that affiliate ratings and network numbers are unreliable measures of a shows’ reach.
Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale — A streaming comparison
Hulu’s marquee, high-cost show, The Handmaid’s Tale, is averaging 1 million viewers a week, yet Prodigal Son is making 2+ million viewers per week in what would be considered “delayed+streaming viewership” (+7). It would literally be a better investment to move Prodigal Son to a streaming service like Hulu or HBO to obtain a 1.5 Million+ weekly audience, especially when margins on Hulu’s shows are low. This makes a further case for the show as a better fit on a streaming platform, even if that platform ultimately isn’t Hulu or HBO.
Whether the move can happen remains to be seen. One thing is clear though, the fandom of Prodigal Son is not giving up its beloved characters, even if some of them are serial killers. (The recent cast addition, and buzz about, veteran actors Catherine Zeta-Jones and Alan Cumming also made the cancellation at the end of Season 2 seem all the more bizarre.)
At the writing of this article, the fanbase on Twitter is about to begin another Tweetstorm organized by the @ProdigalSaviors. And they do mean business as they prepare to continue their pursuit of securing a streaming platform for their favorite show. Meanwhile, Seasons 1 and 2 are now streaming on HBOMax, who on May 20th, sadly announced they would pass on picking up the show for a Season 3. However, other financially stable streaming services that would benefit from Prodigal Son’s large fanbase are still out there with Netflix, PrimeVideo, and Apple+ as potential landing spots.